S.3 E.2: “Trying to Do Right by Whales”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum and right whale researcher Nadine Lysiak '03.
Posted on August 20th, 2020 by

Marine biologist, professor of biology, and Gustavus graduate Nadine Lysiak ’03 on majoring in biology and history at Gustavus, researching North Atlantic right whales both in the lab and up close at sea, the Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine, and the rewards of teaching.

Season 3, Episode 2: “Trying to Do Right by Whales”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Last summer, in pre-pandemic year 2019, I was snoozing a beach in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, only to be startled awake by the shouting of other beachgoers. At first, in my drowsiness, I thought people were reacting to one of the great white sharks known to feed on seals in those waters. But then I realized that people were running toward, not away, from the water, and that their shouts were exclamations of delight and awe as they beheld the magnificent sight of whales, probably right whales, breaching not far from shore.

Grabbing my iPhone, I rushed to join the others at water’s edge, oohing and ahhing as we took photos and videos of the show before us. We continue to be fascinated by the size and wonder of whales, and perhaps scared a bit as well. And that fascination, if not also fear, combined with the current precarious state of these marine mammals, is why I wanted to speak with a marine biologist who makes them her specialty. Gustavus alumni, Nadine Lysiak, Assistant Professor of Biology at Suffolk University in Boston.

I first met Nadine when she enrolled in one of my US History Survey courses at Gustavus some 20 years ago. Impressed with her high level of class participation and obvious curiosity about the past, I hoped she would become a history major, which she eventually did, with honors, while also majoring in biology. After graduating in 2003, she earned her PhD in biology from Boston University, while also beginning a long stint as researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her many achievements and distinctions include winning a Barry M. Goldwater scholarship while at Gustavus, the Reinier Voigt Memorial Award, first place from Boston University’s marine program, a dissertation fellowship from the American Association of University Women, and a post-doc in biology at Baylor University, as well as authoring and co-authoring a long list of publications, presentations, and successful research grants.

Her research, which has entailed numerous stints at sea and up close work with whales, was featured in The Atlantic magazine in June 2018. Having proudly kept up with Nadine over the years, I know what a great treat it is to speak with her about her love of nature, science, and whales, and I am especially delighted to do so in this format. So welcome, Nadine, I’m so glad you could join the podcast.

Nadine Lysiak:

Thanks Greg, I’m so happy to be here with you.

Greg Kaster:

And I should know you’re in Maine, I’m in Minnesota, in Minneapolis. It’s very hot here. What’s it like there?

Nadine Lysiak:

It’s a lovely, breezy summer day.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds nice. I miss Maine. Welcome again, it’s so good to talk with you. So I thought we’d start, as I like to do, at the beginning, and talk a little bit about how you came to Gustavus, what brought you there, and then, related, how you decided to major in both biology and history. I should also note, for listeners, that what you say in response to any of my questions does not necessarily reflect the views of Suffolk University. But aside from me pressuring you to become a history major, talk a little bit about how you came to Gustavus and how you came to double major in bio and history.

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, sure. So I remember becoming aware of Gustavus when I was in middle school. I had a really fantastic science teacher, Mr. Gustavson and he had what I now think was probably a poster for the Nobel Conference on our classroom wall, but I remember staring at it and thinking the name sounded really interesting. So, I think that was probably the first awareness I had of Gustavus, and then when it was time for me to pick schools, that was one of the places that I looked at first. And I went on a campus visit with my parents, and my dad, who’s from the east coast, really wanted me to go to Princeton. But by the time we left Gustavus, he really wanted me to go there.

So I think I really was drawn to the small size of the school, and the friendly atmosphere, and the high academic standards that were there.

Greg Kaster:

And you had grown up in Minnesota, right?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, I grew up in the Twin Cities, a suburb of St. Paul. So I wasn’t far away, and I’m really close with my family, so I wanted to be able to go to school elsewhere but still be able to see them. So there was a lot of draw for staying near the Twin Cities.

Greg Kaster:

And had you been to a Nobel Conference in high school, or not?

Nadine Lysiak:

No, I didn’t know what it was, really, until I got to Gustavus. So I didn’t go to one until I was actually a student there.

Greg Kaster:

And for listeners, it’s one of the signature events at Gustavus, which brings together scientists, often at least one Nobel Prize winner, and ethicists to talk about issues of the day. Last year’s was on climate change, and this coming fall’s will be on cancer and biotechnology. So, you did come to Gustavus, we’re happy about that. And did you come knowing you wanted to major in biology? I assume you didn’t know you wanted to major in history.

Nadine Lysiak:

Correct, yeah. I knew I wanted to major in biology, I’ve always loved science and done really well in it. My mom was a science teacher before I was born, she stayed home to take care of me, but she taught middle school science, so she definitely brought me up as a naturalist. So I always loved science and animals. So I knew I wanted to do that. And then I actually remember talking with my parents about what classes I would take in my first semester, and I mentioned a history class, and my mom definitely chimed in that she thought I would love that, I’ve always been interested in old things, I used to be obsessed with Little House on the Prairie, and old-time thinking and reflecting on what came before us. So I was really excited to take that class with you.

And it definitely was not in my mind to be a history major, but I started taking more classes, and really enjoyed them, so I decided to major in both.

Greg Kaster:

Again, we’re delighted. It was so fun to have you, I still have such vivid memories of you in the back, well, we were probably in a U shape [classrooms], and you were… my memories is the chair, the desk was back against the wall but your hand was going up often, and it was just, that was it. I knew you were interested in learning, including in learning about the past. And so we should thank Little House on the Prairie for bringing us history majors. People sometimes wonder, show could you double… what do biology and history have in common, or was it just sort of compartmentalized for you, if you can think back to what it was like to be double majoring in both disciplines?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, it wasn’t a natural fit necessarily, because there was no overlap. Like sometimes students will major in something like biology and chemistry, something where there’s some shared classes. So I remember having to strategize a little bit, usually trying to take classes that would fulfill a general education requirement as well, so I would have time for everything. But I really enjoyed it. The thing that I remember most about becoming a history major and taking those classes was it was… I think many college students’ experience, it was sort of the first time where I was examining why it was that I thought how I thought about things.

And learning about just the idea that what we learned when we were younger in school about how things happened was only one side of the story. I remember being really impacted by that. Being a history major was really formative for me in terms of figuring out how I fit in the world, what I believed, how I perceived information, those were all, I remember being really important parts of the process.

Greg Kaster:

All music to my ears, of course. As a biology major, were you specializing eventually in a particular area of biology? I’m thinking here about how you came to be interested in marine biology, specifically.

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah. So obviously Gustavus does not have a marine biology program. We did have, and I think you still do, you have some faculty who are studying lake biology, limnology… I definitely gravitate towards animals, so organismal biology and ecology, that kind of nature focused disciplines. So I was able to pursue those as part of the core curriculum for biology, and also some elective classes. And I also was involved in independent research as an undergrad with a faculty member, so I went out in the field with other students and we sampled some of the local lakes, looked at little tiny animals called plankton, cell plankton. We studied their behavior.

So I was definitely learning how to be a field biologist, learning how to be a researcher. And the marine part came a little bit later. And really, the big formative experience for me at Gustavus was studying abroad. So I studied abroad in Australia in my junior year, and was able to take quite a few marine biology classes. And I think that really helped me solidify that I wanted to continue down that path specifically.

Greg Kaster:

I’m so glad you brought that up, because I was going to ask you about that experience, and it’s just another example, among countless examples, of how important study abroad can be. I actually interviewed for the podcast, for season one, Bryan Messerly, who’s the relatively new director of that office, and it’s just so great to see students going abroad still, and having experiences that can shape their careers, even though they may not know it at the time. Didn’t you also go to… was it Tanzania as well? I can’t remember.

Nadine Lysiak:

Yup. Professor Cindy Johnson at the time had a J-term class to Tanzania, so I went on safari with her. That was an amazing experience. We traveled all over the country, we had guides who were affiliated with Gustavus, I believe they were alums. We got to see all the wildlife you would hope for, we got to meet different groups of people, different cultural groups. It was amazing.

Greg Kaster:

I remember, you may remember as well, some time after that trip, we were at the local coffee shop, River Rock, and you were showing me photos. By the way, you are a terrific photographer. I should’ve noted that in the introduction. But you were showing me photos, and I remember thinking that one day you’re going to be a naturalist, and I was close. And you do some of that, certainly, but somehow you would be teaching about animals. Your love of animals and of science and of nature was coming through the photos and how you talked about them.

Anyway, so on to Boston University from Gustavus. What about your interest in whales, specifically? Did that develop already in Australia, or was that at BU? How did that come about?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, that’s a good question, I don’t know if I have a great answer, I don’t really remember exactly when that clicked in. You know as young as being in high school, I was interested in whales and learning more about them. I don’t think I ever thought that I would study them at that age, I don’t think I really realized that people could do that for a job. I just thought they were cool. But then when I was at BU, and just to clarify, the Boston University marine program, when I attended it, was in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, so I lived on Cape Cod. Now that program is in Boston.

I just was interested in learning about how it might be possible to study marine mammals. It’s notoriously a kind of difficult field to get into. So I sort of just went around town, it’s a small village with lots of research institutions, and met with different marine mammal biologists, and was asking them for advice on what kind of bite-sized master’s project might be that would be useful. And that’s sort of how I got initially started in studying whales on my own.

Greg Kaster:

I love these kinds of stories, as I said before on the podcast, because they just remind us that often, people’s paths are not… well they’re certainly not foreordained, but they’re also not necessarily straightforward or perfectly thought out. You knew you wanted to be a bio major at Gustavus, but still you didn’t see yourself as, at that point, researching whales, and here you are. You certainly didn’t see yourself majoring in history, but you went ahead.

Let me back out, before I ask you this question I should note that last summer, it was after that wonderful show on the beach, I was in Boston, and I was able to meet you in your new office at Suffolk University. And I held whale baleen for the first time ever, and it was really a powerful experience to be holding that. It sort of felt like wood to me, you can say more about that, but so your research has to do with… you research whale baleen, but you can tell us both why you do that and how you do it.

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah. So, I research whale baleen, that’s the project that I started when I was master’s student, and I’ve continued to work on it because it has been a really fruitful and fascinating enterprise, and there’s so much to learn from it, which I’ll tell you about in a second. But some of your listeners might not know what baleen is. So, there are two types of whales. There are toothed whales, like killer whales and dolphins, and then there are the baleen whales. Those are typically the larger species, like the humpback is probably the most familiar to people.

So they lack teeth, and instead they have what are called baleen plates. They are triangular shaped, flat structures that grown down from the upper jaw of baleen whales, and they have a furry, hair like fringe on the back of them, and they sit together like pages in a book, or another way to think about it is they hang down from the jaw like vertical blinds. And the animals can actually strain water through them, and it helps them catch their prey.

So, yeah, I study baleen. I have to get it from dead whales, unfortunately, so I’m in the business of researching dead things. Which, unfortunately, there’s a lot of them…

Greg Kaster:

That’s [inaudible 00:15:39] history, by the way, that’s perfect [inaudible 00:15:41]

Nadine Lysiak:

Yes. I would love to talk about the collision of my two degrees and the research that I do, because it’s been pretty interesting. So I study baleen, you can think of me as a whale historian, because I use baleen to look back in time in what the animal was doing and how it was responding to its environment. So, I guess the goal, just to summarize really quickly, the goal of my research is to understand feeding, migration behavior, so movements, and now, more recently, stress and reproductive physiology. So, how are animals experience and responding to stressors, and what’s their reproductive life like?

So, all of that you can measure in baleen. It’s a really easy sampling technique. I take a baleen plate, which, for a species like a North Atlantic right whale, can be six to eight feet long, and something like a humpback, which I think, Greg, that’s what you got to hold last summer, that’s more like maybe two feet in length, three feet in length, depending on the animal. So I just use a handheld drill, like a Dremel tool, which a lot of people have for home projects, and I drill little pits in the baleen at regular intervals, and that gives me little powdered samples. And then from there I can analyze all kinds of concentrations of compounds in these powdered samples.

So some of the things that I study are stable isotopes, or hormones, or other chemical biomarkers that tell us something about what the whale did before it died.

Greg Kaster:

Again, I find all that so fascinating. And what is the purpose of your research? What are the larger goals?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah. So, what I did my graduate work on, my PhD, was trying to find out where North Atlantic right whales migrate to. So that’s a species that lives on the east coast of the US, highly endangered, and they are really impacted by human activity, like ships and fishing gear, negatively. And we know where they are for some of the year, like they have a stereotypical migration cycle, but a lot of them disappear for long periods of time, and we don’t know where they go.

So, my research was using a biomarker called stable isotopes to try to retrace where the animals that I studied, where they have been over the course of their life. So, that was one goal. More recently, I mentioned I’m looking into stress and reproductive physiology. So, the goal of that is to learn about reproductive rate and success. So, how many times are right whales pregnant in the period of time that I’m studying, are they pregnant more often than we think, and not all of those pregnancies are successful.

And then stress physiology, what’s their baseline stress level, what are they encountering in the ecosystem? And then for animals that are specifically impacted by fishing gear entanglements, what’s the physiological cost of those in animals where that was fatal? So that we can understand how long entanglements actually occur and what they’re doing to these animals.

Greg Kaster:

First of all, I’m imagining whales shouting, “We’re stressed.” Which I think they are, just from what I’ve heard from you and what I’ve read. Say a little bit more about some of the stressors you just mentioned, the fishing entanglements, collisions with ships. Is that fairly common among not only right whales, but all whales?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, so I can speak the best to North American right whales, but what I’m describing is not uncommon for other species. So a major stressor that I’m interested in is fishing gear entanglement, and obviously, some of the whales die from it, and we find them, so we can see a clear connection. But the New England Aquarium in Boston is a research group that has been studying these animals really extensively, and they have a photographic catalog of individuals over time. And by looking at scars, when they appear, and common scar injuries associated with fishing gear entanglements, they estimate that over 80% of all of the whales have been entangled at least once.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Nadine Lysiak:

So, they’re all likely encountering gear at some point, and many are obviously able to shed it on their own, but even if it doesn’t kill them, it can have sublethal effects, causing them stress, impacting their reproductive success, which is a big deal in a population that is small and reproducing really slowly. So we’re not only interested in studying what is killing these animals directly, but what’s preventing them from reaching their maximum reproductive capacity.

Greg Kaster:

What about changes in the ocean itself? Are those changes, warming oceans for example, are they affecting the ability of whales to feed?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, I think the biggest clue to that is that we’re seeing the prey that the whales likely feed on is moving in space. So, they’re moving further northward, for example, so the whales are changing their distribution patterns to meet that prey. And then often what has happened in this species is that the protection measures that have taken a really long time to implement in their, air quotes, normal habitats, are not in place in these new habitats.

And so the animals go to these new places and are then at elevated risk for an encounter with fishing gear, ships. So, ocean warming is definitely impacting these animals, and probably the most direct way is that it’s changing the distribution of their prey.

The other one is that it’s bringing fishing activity, or increasing fishing activity into different places, and also potentially increasing ship traffic in different places. So, kind of all of those negative impacts can be exacerbated in areas where maybe they weren’t as heavily impacted before. I’m alluding to places like the arctic, for example, which have been rather low level impacted by fishing and shipping, but stand to be impacted in a higher degree as those industries can move further and further north.

Greg Kaster:

So the whales face a lot of stressors, it sounds like to me. When I think of you, I think of you in water, first of all. I think of you as someone who loves the water, in ways I’m envious of since I’m not a very good swimmer. But you’ve done a lot of work at sea as part of your research on whales, and I think people would be interested in hearing about some of that. Both what that’s like, to be… I know some of the research is on a larger ship, but you’re in these small boats, I forget what they’re called, and you’re up close to the whales. What is that like, to be that close to the whale? What are you thinking? Is it scary, is it awe inspiring, all of the above?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, it’s all of the above. You’re right, I’ve done work on a variety of different sized vessels. So, large government research ships, commercial crabbing boats. But yeah, kind of the most exciting was on smaller 12 foot RIBs, rigid hull inflatable boats, that we used to drive close around whales for research purposes. So these are, I should say, permitted activities, like attaching tags, collecting skin and blubber or fecal samples, and other kinds of work like that.

It is all of the above. It was exciting, it was scary, but I do remember vividly driving a small boat for tagging operations. So we have to get close enough to attach a suction cup tag using a carbon fiber pole. So I would have to drive parallel to whale that was feeding, close enough for a researcher on the bow of the vessel to slap that tag on the back. And I remember time slowing down. Like I felt really aware that this animal was something that I needed to be very careful around, it was very formidable.

I felt like they knew we were there, and I felt actually very calm, even though it was also scary at the same time. But yeah, it was so cool. I mean, I know I’m so lucky, so few people will ever get to experience something like that. I don’t do that kind of work now, now I’m in the classroom and in the lab, but that was a really special time in my life that I got to do that.

Greg Kaster:

I can only imagine, having done one whale watch cruise out of Boston Harbor when I was in graduate school, and it was just amazing to see the whales that close. I can only imagine what it’s like. Now, how big is a right whale, a fully grown right whale, how long?

Nadine Lysiak:

So, a fully grown right whale would be 50 feet in length, and 50 tons in weight. So, a bit bigger than a school bus.

Greg Kaster:

And are you able, as you’re that close, are you able to actually touch their skin, or is that prohibited?

Nadine Lysiak:

So, that is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The widest part of the whale is actually the tail flukes, so I could have, at one point, probably could have touched those. But we weren’t close enough to touch the body. It’s very important in the studies that we’re doing not to harass and alter the behavior of these animals because we’re trying to answer questions about how they behave naturally, so we try to minimize our impact on them as much as possible.

But I definitely, in my dreams, think about snorkeling or diving with whales and getting to actually touch them, but I never was able to do that in my own work.

Greg Kaster:

Some people, and I’m one of them, have of course the Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick, in mind when they think of whales, these ferocious, destructive beasts. But it sounds like, I think you said you felt calm, and they seemed calm. Do you have a sense of what they’re thinking or feeling as human beings approach them that closely?

Nadine Lysiak:

I just know from my experience, it was important not to make sudden movements, so for me, that was not revving my engine and kind of altering the status quo. For what we were doing, we were tagging feeding whales, so they are pretty preoccupied with their business, and as long as we weren’t causing them any stress, I think they were fine with us, but there are people who have to get close to whales who are under a lot of duress. I’m specifically referring to trained responders who deal with whale disentanglement, so they actually cut fishing gear off of whales that are free swimming but chronically entangled.

And those interactions can be, I think, I’ve never done it, but they can be very scary. The animals are in pain, they’re in distress, they don’t want to be approached, they don’t want to be touched. And a couple of summers ago, a colleague was actually killed in one of those interactions. So it doesn’t always go the way that we hope. Just a plug for people on the water not to try to intervene in whale disentanglement. It’s best left to the professionals.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. There’s some risk.

Nadine Lysiak:

Of course, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sorry, you were going to say something else?

Nadine Lysiak:

No.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. I’m just thinking what I saw… it’s called breaching, right, is that what it’s called when they jump, that’s what I said in my intro, when they jump out of the water? Is that right?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yup, so breaching is putting at least part of the body out of the water and letting [inaudible 00:28:56]

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It really was incredible to see that. Right whales, or humpback whales, I remember emailing you right away, what are we looking at? I think you said probably right whales or humpback whales. But in any case, why do they do that? Is that part of feeding, what is that about?

Nadine Lysiak:

That’s a great question. We don’t know for sure. The hypotheses or guesses are that it could be communication, so the splash that gets made can be heard for some distance, so that might be one. It might be pleasurable, like they have a lot of ectoparasites on their body, might feel good to knock some of those off, or basically scratch their back, so to speak. Might be fun, we see a lot of new calves doing a lot of breaching, might just be fun.

I actually have seen one whale breach several times and then have a pretty bad bout of intestinal distress. So it might be something related to that in some individuals. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of reasons why they do it, but it does look pretty fun.

Greg Kaster:

It looks fun, it looks like they’re having fun, and it was just so amazing to see. I’ll never forget it, not because of the sight only, but because it just reminded me that, here we were, in 2019, and I’m sure some of the people on that beach had seen sights like that before, but everyone was still, we were all like little kids. We just were in absolute awe, and applauding, and laughing, and thoroughly enjoying it. And I hope the whales were as well.

You think about all the time you’ve spent with whales, both living and dead, what are some of your takeaways about these mammals?

Nadine Lysiak:

That’s such a good question. In terms of living whales, especially some species, are just so complex and highly intelligent. And I think we barely understand or recognize the extent of that. It’s just kind of awe inspiring, as a species that considers itself to be highly intelligent and complicated, that we have at least our equal, if not more. Graham Burnett is, I guess he’s a historian at Princeton, but he wrote about the history of the science of whaling and marine mammal science, and he wrote about how maybe whales are more highly evolved than us because they’ve never taken up arms against each other.

Greg Kaster:

Mm-hmm.

Nadine Lysiak:

So I just think that it’s an interesting thing to think about, this highly intelligent species that deals with a really, really harsh climate and physical environment. Living in the ocean as a mammal is really hard. There’s a lot of things that you have to be able to survive. And over a fairly short period of evolutionary history they’ve managed to come up with these adaptations like blubber and the ability to dive thousands of meters below the surface and not die under the pressure, and the nitrogen narcosis, and all the things that human divers are susceptible to.

So for living whales, it’s the intelligence, the adaptations, that I think are really interesting. And just the, as you were describing, the emotional reaction that they invoke in people. I love watching people watch whales. It’s fascinating. Why are we so excited about them? No one can really explain it. It’s a really interesting phenomenon, I think.

And then, for dead whales, it’s pretty humbling to stand next to one and realize how big they are, and to see inside of their bodies, and to see up close some of these adaptations that I was talking about. But I think the biggest thing that I’m struck by is how much suffering individuals can experience at the hands of human activity, even if it’s unintentional, and how out of sight and out of mind that is for most people. Some of the animal welfare issues that apply to these animals would not be tolerated in terrestrial mammals if we could see it. But because most of us are not aware and will never see it, it’s allowed to continue to happen. So, in that way, it’s a pretty humbling experience to study these animals, and try to do right by them, and bring some of these issues to light in the best way that I can.

Greg Kaster:

I can only imagine what it’s like to see a right whale, or any whale, I guess on the beach is where you encounter then typically to get the baleen, where they’ve died, and are tangled up in fishing gear, and as you say, even if it’s unintentional, just the suffering they’ve endured. How long does a whale live? Is there an average lifespan, or does it vary by species?

Nadine Lysiak:

I don’t think we know, Greg. The right whales that I study, we estimate that the oldest one that’s alive today is in her 70s. But we don’t know. In the arctic there’s a related species, the bowhead whale, which lives in association with the sea ice, they migrate up and down the coast of Alaska over the course of the year, and they’re hunted by the Iñupiat people in the fall and in the spring, at the edge of the sea ice, and then off the shore. And in one of those harvests, in the last decade or so, the hunters and whaling captains were butchering one of the animals they caught, and they found a harpoon tip buried inside of the blubber. And that harpoon was manufactured in Nantucket in the 1800s. Or, I’m sorry, manufactured in New Bedford, Mass., in the 1800s. So, that whale has been swimming around with the spent harpoon tip from 150 years ago.

Greg Kaster:

That’s incredible.

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah. There’s also ways to age those animals by doing a chemical analysis of proteins in their eye lens, so that’s a more scientific dating technique, and it’s thought that those animals can live to be over 200 years old.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Nadine Lysiak:

So, just imagining how much the world has changed in their lifetime is pretty extraordinary.

Greg Kaster:

And I’m thinking about, too, as you speak, how for all the research and studying, as you’re suggesting… you’re saying, not suggesting, you’re saying it, that there’s still so much we don’t know about the whales, and maybe that mystery is part of why we find them so fascinating, whether we’re researching them or not. You’ve also done, and still do, I think, maybe now not this summer because of the COVID-19, but you’ve done this, really, I think neat work at Shoals Marine Institute there. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah. So, I am actually teaching there right now, but we’re teaching online. So, this is the first time that Shoals has been virtual. It’s going really well, but we’re definitely missing the location. So, the Shoals Marine Lab is run jointly by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. And the lab, as it stands now, was developed in the 1960s. And it is on Appledore Island, which is the largest, I believe, island in the Isles of Shoals, which is a little island ledge system six miles off the coast of New Hampshire in Maine. So half the isles are part of the state of New Hampshire and then half of them are part of the state of Maine, so it’s kind of cool that you can cross over the state lines over and over in a boat and not even know it.

But I teach a summer class there on marine mammals called Marine Mammal Biology. We cram an entire semester’s worth of learning in two weeks, so it’s a very intense summer course, but we also do a lot field work. We go on whale watches, we collect plankton, and we also research resident harbor and gray seals that have a haul out on one of the other isles. So we have my class doing that work, but also I mentor, with some other colleagues, undergraduate researchers who come out for the summer and do population monitoring, health assessment, and they’re also looking for evidence of gear entanglements on seals.

Greg Kaster:

And is anyone able to… let’s say I wanted to come to Shoals and study with you. Am I able to do that, or do you have to be enrolled as a student through either Cornell or the University of New Hampshire?

Nadine Lysiak:

That’s a great question. So, for undergraduates, we have a lot of classes, go to the Shoals Marine Lab website to see some of those. But then there’s also a lot of community youth and family programs that tend to occur later in the summer. So there’s a family friendly weekend, and then there’s also an adult class, which I teach with some other colleagues, which is called Shoals Ecology. And we typically teach it at the end of August, and it’s usually about three days long. It’s myself, Dr. Liz Craig, who’s a seabird biologist, she studies terns, cormorants, and other species.

And then Mark Wiley, who’s an educational specialist [inaudible 00:39:16] New Hampshire sea grant. So the three of us cover the gamut of the Maine intertidal ecosystem, marine mammals, seabirds, fishes, and invertebrates.

Greg Kaster:

You know how much I find seals interesting. At least at a distance, I gather they can bite. So one day I want to come there for sure. While we’re talking about teaching at Shoals, maybe we should talk a little bit about your experience as a professor. I know how much you love research, how good you are at it, and then there’s the classroom work you do as a professor of biology in some courses, specifically marine biology, you’ve had a lot of different experiences, and now this tenure track job at Suffolk. What is it about teaching biology, and marine biology specifically, that you enjoy?

Nadine Lysiak:

That’s a great question. I really love interacting with students just in general, I love that it’s my job to be in school. I’m just that nerdy person who has always really liked school and being able to think about things deeply, so just being there really plays to that. I think, for me personally, what I like about teaching is trying to illuminate some of the things for students that I think they should know but they haven’t heard about yet. So, for me, that really comes down to ecological or environmental issues, and then, as I’ve already discussed, some of the ethics and unknown struggles of marine mammals. Those are the things that I really enjoy.

The other thing that I love is teaching students how to be creative about how they learn and study. So I know, for me personally, some things in a college or educational setting come really easy for me. I’m really good at learning names and memorizing how things are organized, that makes a lot of sense to me. But there’s other things that I really struggle to learn, like I remember chemistry, genetics, all those kind of invisible topics, I had a really hard time understanding.

And so I think I had to learn… I know I had to learn ways of slogging through that material and making those things make sense to me. And so, I love working with students to try to figure out how they can figure out how to study and actually really understand the concepts that they’re struggling with. So, I feel like a lot of that happens in office hours or after class, students will ask for help. I find that I really like that.

Greg Kaster:

And you’re right, so much of teaching… certainly the classroom is important, but it’s not just the classroom, in your case, labs as well, but also office hours and other interactions. And I think something you said is really important, that if the teacher is not in love with learning, as you are, and curious about the world, there’s not going to be a whole lot of great teaching going on, wherever it occurs. You’ve mentored a lot of students too, I should note, over the course of the years, and I know you’ll continue to do that.

What about, since you’re interested in ecology, where are you at in terms of thinking about climate change? I know you believe it’s real, as do I, and we’ve talked a little bit about this before, the two of us. But are you optimistic, are you despairing, is it a bit of both, back and forth?

Nadine Lysiak:

I’m very optimistic about the ability of nature to heal itself. Either ecosystems, organisms that are on the brink of extinction, but what I struggle with is humanity’s will to allow things to recover, or to change our own behavior to fix some of these problems before they’re too accelerated. So, I definitely get a little bit fed up and cynical about all the things that have to change, but I don’t allow myself to not be optimistic, because there’s so many smart, intelligent people, and we’re working so hard to improve access to education and technology for all kinds of people who might have the answers that we need inside of them.

So, as a species, we’ve managed to create and overcome so much. I know we have the ability to solve the problems that we need to solve. But it’s the political, personal will that holds us back, I think. So, that part does get me down, but I try to do what I can and encourage others to do what they can to turn the tide as much as possible.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and I think it is that political will, the lack of it, that can get one down, or how hard it is to mobilize it, and sometimes, on behalf of something that in the scheme of things is not going to make a whole lot of difference. But still, like you, I try to be optimistic. I came away from last year’s Nobel conference on climate change certainly feeling better about the science and our ability to deal with climate change, even if the problem of political will persists, as it always will.

Speaking of optimism, what about the whales themselves, what’s being done to help them in therms of the fishing gear entanglement and the running into ships?

Nadine Lysiak:

Yeah, there’s been some really great collaborations, as it’s been clear that maybe certain areas or certain fisheries maybe carry a higher risk to certain species than others. There’s been lots of amazing collaborations of fishermen, lobstermen and women, legislatures, political leaders, scientists, conservationists, who are all working together to try to find solutions.

So, some of the things that are happening include broad sweeping closures of certain fisheries, at certain times coupled with monitoring of presence of whales, using airplanes primarily, to fly around and look for them in certain areas, and then when they’re spotted, immediately closing fishing activity in those areas for a certain amount of time.

But I think what’s really exciting is the collaboration between engineers, fishermen, and scientists to try and actually modify gear so that it can still be used around whales and not pose the same risk to them. So, in my area, the lobster industry is a big target of modification. So, it’s the fact that there are ropes in the water column that whales swim into and then get wrapped up in that connect the traps to surface buoys.

So, for example, there’s a whole group of people who are trying to develop what’s called ropeless fishing gear. So, gear that is of higher technology, where lobster pots sit on the sea floor, and then when the lobsterman is ready to haul them, they communicate with a contraption on the trap acoustically that releases the lead lines, the vertical lines that pop up to the surface, and then they can haul their gear. So there’s a lot of cool modifications that are in the works, and then collaboratively being tested by fishermen to make sure that they’re safe, that they’re effective, that they’re still able to earn their livelihoods.

So, I think those are the most positive changes that I’m witnessing in my community of people of different walks of life, and different industries and agendas coming together to try to find a sustainable solution.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds very hopeful to me, very promising, and I think it’s clearly what we need to do, rather than simply vilifying the lobster people, or telling them they have to stop doing what they do, to work with them and find solutions. That is hopeful. This has been wonderful. I wish now I could get on a… well, a big boat for me, and go look at some whales. It’s such a pleasure to speak with you always, whether in Boston or in Minneapolis, or now on this podcast.

We’re so proud of you and all that you’ve done, and I’m speaking for all the profs at Gustavus, in bio and history both. So, take good care, keep up the good work, and I guess you’ll be teaching again in the fall one way or the other, and have a good summer and a good start to the teaching in the fall.

Nadine Lysiak:

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise. Take care, Nadine. Bye-bye.

Nadine Lysiak:

Bye, Greg.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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